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Why did prosecutors drop murder charges against a Durham teenager?

In December, Alexander Bishop’s defense attorney Allyn Sharp made a highly unusual move: she asked the judge to hold prosecutors in contempt of the court, which could put them behind bars. 

Much of the evidence against Alexander, a Durham teenager charged with killing his wealthy father Bill Bishop, had been tossed in October after a judge said the lead investigator “invent[ed] facts.” 

After that, Sharp filed the December motion to hold the investigator, Tony Huelsman, and prosecutors in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked that the case be dismissed. 

Until then, the case against Alexander seemed to be proceeding as expected, pending an appeal regarding the tossed evidence. Prosecutors had given no indication they were throwing in the towel on the case. 

By Feb. 3, no hearing on the contempt motion had been scheduled. In a letter to Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr., Sharp suggested that District Attorney Satana Deberry was dragging her feet in scheduling a hearing in which she would have to defend herself. If found guilty of contempt, Deberry, Huelsman, and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas each could face up to six months in jail.  

Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges against Alexander, citing insufficient evidence. They haven’t explained why. Could the charges have been dropped to avoid the hearing?

“The timing certainly raises questions,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for the district attorney seat in 2018. 

Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment when asked about the timing. Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, also declined to expand on why the charges were dropped, saying the office doesn’t comment on cases after they are dismissed.

Unusual moves and delays seeing evidence

Motions to hold a prosecutor in contempt are “exceedingly rare,” according to Durham criminal defense attorney Alex Charns. Meier agreed.  

Usually, if prosecutors aren’t turning over evidence, a hearing will be held to discuss why the information isn’t being provided, Meier said. 

“If it’s legitimate, everyone moves on,” Meier said. “If there is no good reason, (the evidence) is ordered turned over.”

But in the Bishop case, the typical process seemed to fall apart. 

During the initial discovery phase, Sharp noticed many items that prosecutors were supposed to hand over were missing. At a homicide status conference in April, a judge told her to list all 33 of the missing items, which Sharp emailed to prosecutors, according to her contempt motion.

But nearly a month later, she hadn’t received any of the evidence, according to her motion. And when some of it arrived, it was incomplete. In mid-May, when she got police body camera footage, four of 19 body camera footage files she requested were missing. 

Sharp asked for the missing files. She got back duplicates of ones she had already received, not the missing ones. She asked again. Those missing videos turned out to be crucial to the case. 

Huelsman misrepresented what Alexander said to first responders in the videos in search warrants in three of the four missing videos, Judge Hudson found when he tossed swaths of evidence due to Huelsman’s misconduct. 

It is evident that the District Attorney and/or Investigator Huelsman are deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines the State’s case, providing items only after they are specifically identified as missing by undersigned counsel, and even then refusing to provide items which clearly contradict Investigator Huelsman’s sworn statements,” Sharp wrote in the motion. 

In September, Hudson ordered prosecutors to turn over the complete file. 

That still hadn’t happened by December, Sharp claimed in the Dec. 17 motion. Some of the missing evidence included financial documents from Bill’s computer. 

After unsuccessfully trying to get a hearing date in January, Sharp wrote a letter to Judge Hudson on Feb. 3 asking him to schedule a hearing on the contempt motion. Three days later, prosecutors filed a motion to drop the charges against Alexander. 

Although Meier said the timing raises questions, Charns said he didn’t want to speculate on why the charges were dropped. 

What’s next?

Alexander was already free on a $250,000 unsecured bond before the charges were dropped. 

“Alexander is grateful to finally be able to move on with his life after the tragic loss of his father and an unwarranted criminal prosecution,” Sharp said in a statement.

Prosecutors had appealed Hudson’s move to toss evidence, but that appeal has become “moot” due to the dropped charges, Willets told the 9th Street Journal. 

But charges against him could be refiled later, Willets said, although she declined to comment when asked if prosecutors would continue to pursue charges against him.

Meier said, “The charges could be refiled pretty much whenever the prosecutor wanted to do so. However, it’s very rarely done unless there is some new evidence that comes to light.”

‘Tenacious and compassionate’: How Bishop attorney Allyn Sharp defends her clients – and wins

At a hearing in September 2019, Allyn Sharp took down Tony Huelsman with ease. 

Huelsman, the lead investigator in the case against Alexander Bishop, a Durham teenager accused of killing his father, Bill Bishop, couldn’t help but stutter when Sharp grilled him about his search warrants. Prosecutors had suggested Alexander plotted to kill his wealthy father, a real estate developer with a $5.5 million estate to which Alexander was one of two heirs, after Alexander said he found him in a chair with a dog leash wrapped around his neck. 

His face often flushed red, matching his American flag tie. Sharp, with a smile and piercing blue eyes, just kept grilling him, breaking Huelsman down bit by bit. 

Huelsman had sworn in search warrants based on a purchase order that he believed $462,773 of gold bars were missing from Bill’s safe, suggesting Alexander may have had a financial motive for killing his father. But the gold was never actually missing. The purchase order shows Bill had sold the gold, not purchased it, in August 2016. 

Sharp didn’t let Huelsman’s sloppy investigating go unpunished in cross-examination at the Sept. 16 hearing

“It’s your testimony that you didn’t remember noticing the date?” Sharp asked. 

“That’s correct,” Huelsman said. 

“And that you didn’t find the date relevant at the time?” Sharp asked. 

“I did not,” Huelsman said. 

Sharp’s interrogation worked. Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. tossed swaths of evidence, ruling Huelsman was either “untruthful or showed a reckless disregard for the truth” in his search warrants. 

That’s just how the case against Alexander fell apart. Allyn Sharp broke it down. Prosecutors acknowledged as much when they dropped murder charges against Alexander earlier this month, citing insufficient evidence. 

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman, and another prosecutor had been facing the prospect of a hearing when Sharp charged them with failing to share evidence in the case. Sharp accused Deberry of destroying evidence and Huelsman and/or Deberry of “deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines” the case against Alexander.

She also accused prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas of failing to alert the court that Huelsman allegedly perjured himself. 

Three days before prosecutors dropped the charges, Sharp had demanded a hearing on the contempt charges in a Feb. 3 letter after filing the motion in December. 

Sharp wasn’t eager to take credit for her victory, though. 

“All I did was my job, which was to protect a young innocent man from being wrongly convicted, which was made easy here by the fact the State’s case was based on falsities,” Sharp told the 9th Street Journal. 

Through the District Attorney’s office spokesperson Sarah Willets, Deberry and prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas declined to elaborate on why the charges were dropped, saying the office doesn’t comment on specific cases after they are dismissed.

Sharp’s nontraditional path to law 

Sharp didn’t exactly take a traditional path to becoming a criminal defense attorney. 

She received her undergraduate degree from the University of California San Diego in 1998 but didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. So she went to South Africa, moved in with a Zulu family, and volunteered at a hospice facility for patients with AIDS. 

“I wasn’t saving lives there, but I was helping people die peacefully, which was more rewarding than I could have ever imagined,” she wrote on her website. “It was through that experience that I realized I wanted to work in a helping profession.”

She wound up in law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 2011 and became a public defender in Greensboro, where she worked for two years. 

Wayne Baucino, who has been a public defender for more than two decades, immediately spotted her talent in Greensboro. She noticed the little details other attorneys might miss and was dedicated to her clients, Baucino told The 9th Street Journal.  

Just six months after becoming an attorney, she delivered the closing argument in a capital murder case. Her client won. 

Her experience in South Africa may have made her the attorney she is today.  

“If I could use two words to describe her it would be tenacious and compassionate,” Baucino said. “I’ve probably learned more from her about really caring about my clients than I had learned in all my previous years in practice.”

After two years in Greensboro, she became a public defender for felony cases in Durham for three-and-a-half years. She didn’t lose any trials as a public defender from 2011 to 2017 before moving into private practice. 

‘She will find things that I suspect other lawyers don’t find’

Sharp’s compassion for clients can be seen in her tenacity. Baucino described how she dives into a case headfirst and looks at every detail with a fine-toothed comb. 

“She will find things that I suspect other lawyers don’t find,” Baucino said. 

That’s what happened when Sharp defended Alexander, who had been charged in February 2019 with killing his father.

But Sharp was quick to point out what she — and eventually Judge Orlando F. Hudson — saw as misconduct from Huelsman in investigating the case. 

Two months after Alexander was charged, Sharp filed a meticulous 20-page motion to suppress swaths of key evidence. Huelsman made false or misleading statements to get search warrants and failed to show probable cause, Sharp argued in the April 2019 motion. 

One example of alleged misconduct was Huelsman’s claim in a search warrant that Alexander made “suspicious” online searches in light of his father’s death. Those included searches for the “price of gold per ounce,” “how to transfer bank accounts after death,” and “how to calculate the value of an estate. 

Not a great look for the defendant, right?

But Sharp pointed out a crucial detail Huelsman deleted in subsequent warrants. Those searches came after Bill’s death, not before as Huelsman had implied. 

“This investigation has been nothing more than a fishing expedition based on Investigator Huelsman’s unsupported suspicions,” Sharp wrote. 

Huelsman had claimed Alexander wanted to speak to the EMS supervisor after his father’s death “alone and away from the police” and that Alexander told the supervisor that he “wasn’t going to be upset about his father dying.” That wasn’t what body cameras said. 

Alexander Bishop only said that he wanted to speak with the EMS supervisor “in private” — not away from law enforcement — and that he “feels bad that he doesn’t necessarily want [his father] to live,” according to Hudson. 

Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, questioned Huelsman for hours over two days of hearings. Photo by Ben Leonard | The 9th Street Journal

Huelsman did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. 

Sharp pointed out all of these things in the motion and in cross-examination, an area where she shines, according to Baucino. 

Her argument landed in court, with Hudson throwing out most of the evidence against Alexander, pending an appeal. 

In October, Hudson tossed evidence regarding the “suspicious” searches and the “missing” gold that wasn’t actually missing. Based on Sharps’ motion, the Superior Court Judge tossed Alexander’s supposedly contradictory statements about where he found Bill, along with what Alexander told first responders about how he felt about his father’s death. 

By February, prosecutors dropped murder charges against Alexander due to lack of evidence in a stunning admission of their shaky case. Without the tossed evidence, it seems the case was no longer viable. 

Sharp told the 9th Street Journal that she can’t take credit for the dismissal. 

“This case is and has always been about evidence which was falsified by the lead investigator, who was the only witness to testify before a grand jury in an unrecorded proceeding which led the grand jury to return an indictment,” Sharp said. “Alexander is innocent and should never have been charged or prosecuted.”

In photo at top, Sharp sits with Alexander Bishop at a September hearing on the case. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

Duke Hospital sends bill collectors after student rape victim

In the early morning on Dec. 13, 2018, a Duke student was sitting in her apartment’s common room in the university’s Central Campus. She was cramming for her organic chemistry final when a man she didn’t know opened the door. She said the stranger entered, threatened her with a knife, and raped her.

The student, then a sophomore, immediately went to the Duke Hospital emergency room. She wanted a sexual assault nurse examiner to collect a rape kit, an invasive evidence collection process that often takes hours and requires victims to describe the details of their assault. But that kit could provide crucial evidence for police to catch her assailant.

Police have not announced any arrests in the case. But six months after the assault, the student received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. 

“This is a call from a debt collection agency for Duke Health,” the person said, according to the student. The caller informed her that she owed hundreds of dollars for her emergency room visit for the rape examination.

“Before that, I had no idea I owed any money,” the student, who asked not to be identified, told The 9th Street Journal in an interview. “I asked them to talk to my mom because it was really traumatic and hard, but they didn’t do that. They kept calling me over and over again.”

*  *  *

Rape victims are not supposed to be charged for sexual assault exams, but the rules have loopholes.

The federal Violence Against Women Act requires that all states cover the cost of the exams. But beyond the exams themselves, each state can decide what additional hospital services they’ll cover.

North Carolina’s interpretation is called the Rape Victims Assistance Program. The program offers hospitals up to $800 for a sexual assault exam: $350 for the sexual assault nurse examiner, $250 for the hospital facility fees, and $200 for “other expenses,” including sexually transmitted disease antibiotics or pregnancy tests for the victim. Victims should never be directly billed by a hospital for the examination, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

But Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham, said victims still get charged for other services. 

“There are still fees for checking into the hospital, for getting an X-ray, or for needing other care,” she explained. “All that other stuff, patients can get charged for. Sexual assault patients definitely get bills.”

Chadbourne said some states cover all of a sexual assault victim’s other hospital bills, while others cap their payments at a certain amount. She noted the $800 cap in North Carolina and said, “$800 is nothing at a hospital.”

Though the Violence Against Women Act is supposed to protect victims from being billed after a sexual assault, many women have reported experiences like the student’s, according to accounts in news articles and websites. The practice is caused by a combination of state policy, billing mistakes, and poor communication between debt collectors and hospitals.

*  *  *

When the student went to Duke Hospital last December after being assaulted, she didn’t bring her insurance card.

“They said that was fine at the time,” she said. She was told that she wouldn’t have to pay for her sexual assault exam and that she didn’t have to worry about billing.

A few hours after the assault, police sent a Duke Alert, the university’s warning system for crime and severe weather. “A student reported that between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. this morning… she was awakened by a white male with short brown hair and a perfume smell about him,” read the alert emailed to students, faculty, and staff. “He threatened her with a knife, put on a condom, and forced her to have sex.”

The student was embarrassed by the detailed university-wide alert. “Reading the email was really hard,” she said. “They never asked me if it was okay to send out that email, or if I even wanted to talk to the police. They just said, ‘You need to talk to this officer,’ and I did it because it felt like I had to.”

Months after the assault, she was beginning to heal. She was put in contact with the Duke Women’s Center and started seeing a psychiatrist.

Duke Hospital has an online billing system. But the student said she didn’t think she would have bills, so she never checked it. After four months, Duke Health sends all unpaid medical bills to debt collection agencies.

Then, she got the first call from a debt collector. The calls kept coming.

“We are (a) debt collector,” a voicemail message from the agency said. “This call is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”

“They’re always from a random number, and never the same number twice,” the student said. “I told them my insurance card information, and I got confirmation that everything was worked out over the summer. But they continue to call and say we owe them even more.”

When she called Duke Health to report what was happening, the billing office told her that she had an outstanding charge. She asked that the debt collectors contact her mom instead so she wouldn’t have to explain her situation to strangers. She and her mom are still working through the bill.

Her bill from her emergency room visit on Dec. 13 is labeled “Accounts with Collections Agency” in Duke’s online billing system. But she said she has difficulty determining how much she owes because the collectors have a separate billing system. 

The collectors keep calling, every few months.

The student authorized Duke Health to discuss her bills with The 9th Street Journal, but a Duke Health spokeswoman declined to comment on the student’s situation. 

*  *  *

Across the country, victims have reported getting billed by hospitals after a sexual assault.

“We definitely hear about this,” said Grace Frances, the director of community parternships at End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit that educates professionals about sexual assault. “It is definitely still a problem.”

In 2017, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the average hospital bill after a rape was $6,737. After billing insurance, sexual assault victims were left with an average of $948 to pay out of pocket. And 88% of medical records indicated that victims were charged on the day they visited the hospital.

“Oftentimes, the charges that they’re seeing aren’t the cost of the rape kit,” said Ashley Tennessee, the lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Most people who are sexually assaulted have additional costs. They might want tests completed, or treatments for physical abuse.”

Tennessee sees the problem as twofold: Victims are sometimes mistakenly charged for their rape kit exam. But more often, they’re billed for treatment related to their sexual assault. 

If victims check into the emergency room, they can also be charged a facility fee. Duke itself acknowledges that going to its emergency room will cost patients “at least $1,000.” 

Asked if Duke Health has a policy about charging for sexual assault exams, a spokeswoman declined to comment.

Tennessee recommends that states broaden their policies to reimburse hospitals for more than just the sexual assault exam. She also hopes that hospitals will charge sexual assault victims through a separate billing process to ensure that no mistakes are made.

“Someone has to pay for it,” she said. “At this point, it’s the victim.”

*  *  *

For sexual assault survivors who have been billed by hospitals in North Carolina, there is another option: the crime victim compensation fund. Victims of violent crime can apply for medical compensation up to $30,000, including physical treatment and future counseling. 

But there are bureaucratic hurdles that can be challenging for survivors of sexual assault. To submit a claim, a victim must provide a police report. That means they have to report their rape to police before they’re eligible for the compensation.

“I think you should be able to come into the emergency room and say, ‘I was sexually assaulted, I want to get medical care,’ and get that for free,” Chadbourne said. “But that’s not how it works.”

Even for victims who are eligible to apply to the compensation fund, there are still barriers. They have to collect documents and get them notarized before submitting their application, and will likely wait months to receive compensation. And in the meantime, they’ll still be billed for their sexual assault exam visit.

“It’s unacceptable,” Frances said. “You’re telling victims that you don’t care what it means to them when they get a bill in the mail, and their family sees it.”

“It’s putting the responsibility on the victim to get themselves reimbursed,” Chadbourne said. “And that’s hard.”

For the Duke student, it is also confusing.

“We’re unsure about what the bill is for at this point, because we’ve already paid so much,” she said.

She also feels betrayed by the institution that failed to protect her while on campus. 

“I hated their whole response,” she said. “They just sent us to a collection agency.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Beach can be reached at  cameronbeach6@gmail.com

BISHOP CASE DISMISSED

In a stunning acknowledgement of their shaky case, Durham prosecutors have dropped charges against Alexander Bishop, a teenager accused of killing his father, a wealthy real estate developer.

Alexander had been charged with the 2018 death of his father, Bill Bishop, but prosecutors dropped the charges Thursday.

A court document signed by prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas said the charges were being dismissed because of “insufficiency of the evidence at this time.” A spokeswoman for the Durham District Attorney’s Office declined to comment Thursday afternoon.

A court filing said prosecutors were dismissing charges because of “insufficiency of the evidence at this time.”

Alexander’s attorney Allyn Sharp said in a news release, “Alexander is grateful to finally be able to move on with his life after the tragic loss of his father and an unwarranted criminal prosecution.”

The stunning move by the prosecutor came after Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. had tossed swaths of evidence in October due to misconduct from the lead investigator, Tony Huelsman. Sharp had recently filed a motion to hold Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman, and another prosecutor in contempt for failing to comply with discovery in the case. Sharp also accused Deberry of destroying evidence. 

Alexander had told first responders he found his father in his Hope Valley home on April 18, 2018 with a dog leash wrapped around his neck, and the family dog Winston still attached. Alexander immediately called his mother, Sharon Bishop (then divorced from Bill). He told his mother how he found Bill, and Sharon told him to call 911. 

In that 911 call, he said he found his father unresponsive. ““I think my dad is dead,” he said. “I think my dog got his [leash] wrapped around his throat and his face is purple.”

Bill, a wealthy real estate developer, died three days later at Duke Hospital. Durham’s police investigations unit was told not to respond to the scene because “the circumstances did not warrant investigation,” Sharp wrote in a news release, but an investigation began three days later because Alexander was the only person in the home at the time, according to the release. 

Investigators quickly focused on Alexander, a student at Durham Academy. Police search warrants suggested he had plotted to kill his father. Alexander was indicted in February 2019. He and his brother Jefferson are the heirs to his $5.5 million estate. 

Sharp said Thursday that Bill’s death was a tragic accident and that his autopsy showed blockages of up to 80% in his coronary arteries. She noted that an apparent cardiac event occurred “during or after” the dog’s leash got tangled around his neck.

As part of a series exploring potential causes for Bill’s death, the 9th Street Journal spoke with four forensics experts, who were doubtful Bill died of a heart attack. Three said there was no evidence of one, and the fourth said it was unlikely.

“There’s no evidence of a cardiac event. The defense is just trying to fish,” said Bill Smock, police surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department and a staff member of the Training Institute for Strangulation Prevention in San Diego.

(In photo above, Alexander Bishop talks with his attorney Allyn Sharp during a September hearing. Photo by Cameron Beach | The 9th Street Journal)

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘You think you’re helping someone, but it hurts’

Durham Habitat for Humanity had been trying to help Victoria Dorsey buy a house since 2016. They set their sights on a new Chapel Hill Road home for Dorsey, her husband Otis Johnson, and her 13-year-old daughter Jamila Dorsey.

Over three years later, those aspirations ended in a Superior Court trial in courtroom 6A of the Durham County Courthouse. Onlookers watched as the trial morphed from an amicable discussion of mistakes to a resentful blame-game. 

When Lakeisha Minor, Habitat for Humanity’s family services director, was helping Dorsey close on the house, Minor ran into some roadblocks. First, Dorsey’s subletters missed a rent payment. Then, she falsified some work hours that she needed to purchase the home. 

As the Chapel Hill Road home construction was nearing completion, Dorsey still hadn’t paid off her debt. Habitat wouldn’t let her purchase the house until the outstanding debt was paid. 

“We decided that once the house was completed, then we would allow her to move in and rent the property until she paid off those collections,” Minor said from the witness stand.

On July 18, 2018, Dorsey signed a five-month, 13-day lease agreement with Habitat for Humanity. That would allow her to stay in the new house until the New Year. In the lease agreement, Dorsey agreed that she’d keep her debt under a capped amount. 

But in Dec. 2018, Dorsey decided to cosign for a new car, Minor explained. “When she was cleared into the (housing) program, it was clear that she couldn’t afford more debt. Her ratios were outside what she needed to qualify to purchase a house.” 

At that point, Minor urged Dorsey to take her name off the car loan. It was a recent loan, so they both assumed it wouldn’t prove too difficult. 

“But that didn’t happen,” Minor said flatly.

But Habitat for Humanity, again, gave Dorsey grace.

Habitat for Humanity granted Dorsey three more lease extensions, allowing her to rent the apartment from Jan. 1, 2019, through May 31, 2019, according to Dorsey’s affidavit. Each month, she paid the $650 rent.

In June, Dorsey didn’t extend the lease, she just handed over the $650. Habitat for Humanity accepted the money. 

But then Habitat ran out of patience. On July 9, 2019, Habitat for Humanity sent Dorsey a notice: it was terminating her lease, and she’d have to move out by Aug. 9, 2019.

“Anything from the defense?” Judge Clayton Jones said in a routine fashion. 

Dorsey’s attorney Sarah D’Amato stood up from the chair, seizing an opportunity to change the momentum of the case.

“At this time, I’d like to move to a directed verdict,” said D’Amato, a Legal Aid of North Carolina attorney. 

On Aug. 15, Habitat for Humanity had filed an eviction complaint against Dorsey. It was just six days after Dorsey should have vacated the home, D’Amato argued. And, otherwise, move-out dates don’t come until the term ends at the end of the month.

“Any notice to vacate has to end at the end of the term,” D’Amato said, citing case law from 1898. “Therefore, based on longstanding case law, you will find that the notice that was sent on July 9 was not sufficient notice.” 

“I’m going to side with the defendant in this case,” Judge Jones said, signaling that Dorsey won.

D’Amato and Daron Satterfield, the plaintiff’s attorney, shook hands. Then, D’Amato and Minor walked toward the exit: D’Amato with a grin, and Minor with her lips pursed. 

“It’s a catch-22,” Minor said. “You think you’re helping someone, but it hurts.”

DA Deberry’s progressive agenda put on trial at town hall meeting

Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered last year in Burlington. The person charged with killing the 18-year-old and two others had multiple prior violent convictions, including homicide, but was released on probation.

“When he committed armed robbery, it was like this murder didn’t exist,” Jones told the 9th Street Journal. “He got a smack on the hand and probation.”

Now, Jones says he is fighting against policies that he considers to be too lenient on violent offenders. He’s particularly concerned about plea deals for people who have been previously convicted of a violent crime. 

District Attorney Satana Deberry’s annual report shows that she relied heavily on pleas for murder convictions — just three of 25 convictions were decided by a jury trial, doubling the previous year’s total number of plea convictions. 

Jones took the microphone at a town hall event Thursday to ask about her office’s role in keeping the community safe when releasing violent offenders. 

“How can that be of any good to the community?” Jones asked. “How do you all play a part in being responsible for turning that murderer loose back into the community?”

“This is not a science,” Deberry responded. “We cannot predict down the road what’s going to happen. I’m sorry about what happened with your grandson … What I can say is we don’t take any homicide plea lightly.” 

During the event held at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church near North Carolina Central University and attended by hundreds, community members, like Jones, questioned Deberry’s progressive stance on prosecution. 

In her first year in office, Deberry has discouraged cash bail for lower-level crimes and welcomed less traditional methods such as restorative justice. But she has weathered her fair share of criticism. Half of her staff has changed since she took over in January 2019, with some quitting over disagreements about her approach. 

Deberry used Thursday’s town hall to tout her accomplishments from her first year in office, which include: 

  • Prioritizing more serious crimes

Deberry reported a 12 percent drop in the jail population since enacting a policy to no longer seek cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and minor felonies. The goal: to not punish people who can’t afford to pay with jail time. 

“We don’t want to send people to prison. We don’t think that’s our job,” Deberry said. “We want to reserve the criminal justice system for those people who we don’t really have tools to deal with. Those are the people who commit the most serious crimes.” 

Instead of spending more time on lower-level offenses, Deberry said her office has prioritized more serious crimes. Her office got 25 homicide convictions in her first year in office, 10 more than the previous year. 

Deberry has prioritized cutting down Durham’s backlog of homicide cases. In one year, she has closed one-third of them.

  • Calling for cooperation to curb gun violence

Nearly 200 people were shot in Durham last year. At the recent town hall event, Deberry moderated a panel discussing how her office was responding to gun violence. 

Officials in Deberry’s office said they have focused on collaborating with law enforcement and prosecuting people who are involved in gangs or “in close proximity to violence.” But they can’t keep the community safer on their own, they said. 

Deberry urged witnesses to come forward to help combat gun violence, explaining that her office works to protect witnesses. 

“On television … you see people put a bullet into a machine and the machine spits out a mugshot. We don’t have that technology,” Deberry said. “The absolute best evidence in any case is you.” 

  • Implementing alternative practices 

Deberry has expanded the use of restorative justice, a practice that voluntarily brings the victim and the accused together to promote healing. 

Her office has also expanded referrals to a cognitive behavioral intervention program. This course, which helps people who may have committed crimes improve decision-making, used to be available only after conviction, but now people can be referred before trial. 

“Our goal is not just to punish crime, it is to reduce crime. We want people to not come back to the system,” Deberry said.

Deberry’s office also helped wipe $1.5 million in traffic debt that had barred thousands of people from reinstating their driver’s licenses.

At top: Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn speaks at a town hall event for the District Attorney’s office on Thursday, Jan. 30. Photo by Corey Pilson

CORRECTION: This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated where Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered. 

Bishop attorney accuses prosecutor of misconduct

A defense attorney has leveled a new allegation that prosecutors made serious missteps in the case against Alexander Bishop, a Durham teenager accused of killing his wealthy father, Bill Bishop. 

This time, Bishop’s attorney Allyn Sharp accused Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry of destroying evidence, making misrepresentations to the court, violating a discovery order, and intentionally withholding evidence that would damage the case against Alexander. 

Sharp filed a motion in December asking that Deberry, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Hopkins Thomas, and lead police investigator Tony Huelsman be held in contempt for failing to comply with their discovery order. 

“The District Attorney’s repeated misrepresentations to this Court make clear that the District Attorney’s violations of her obligations and abuses of her authority have been willful and in bad faith,” Sharp wrote in the filing. Being held in contempt could mean up to six months in prison, censure, and fines up to $500, according to North Carolina law

Sharp prevailed the last time she filed a motion with accusations of misconduct. In October, Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. tossed swaths of key evidence after he found that Huelsman made false statements or ones in “reckless disregard of the truth,” and even accused him of “invent[ing] facts.”

Asked about Sharp’s new motion, Durham District Attorney spokesperson Sarah Willets said the office is “committed” to meeting its obligation to turn over evidence in the case and has “made no declaration that discovery in this case is complete,” she told the 9th Street Journal. 

Willets declined to comment further on the motion. No date for a hearing on the motion has been set, she said. 

Sharp: Prosecution ‘Deliberately withholding evidence’

Bill Bishop, a real estate developer, was found in his Hope Valley home with a dog leash wrapped around his neck in April 2018, his son claimed. Police quickly focused on Alexander, and the teenager was charged with killing Bill in February 2019. Alexander’s attorneys then filed a routine request for discovery, a process in which the defense receives evidence from the prosecution. 

But the teenager’s attorneys contend there were many things missing when they received the evidence. So in April 2019, the Superior Court directed Sharp to provide prosecutors with a list of the 33 “missing or incomplete” items, the filing says. But nearly a month later, Alexander’s attorneys said they had received none of the items. 

Among the missing evidence: footage from police body cameras. And when the defense received footage on May 9, 2019, they say they received 15 of the 19 recordings it had requested. 

Sharp asked for the missing videos. Instead, she got four copies of videos she had already received. It took another email to get the correct missing videos.

They ended up being important in the case. They showed a conversation between Alexander and a Durham firefighter that Hudson later ruled Huelsman had misrepresented in his search warrants. 

Sharp wrote in the new filing that “it is evident that the District Attorney and/or Investigator Huelsman are deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines the State’s case, providing items only after they are specifically identified as missing by undersigned counsel, and even then refusing to provide items which clearly contradict Investigator Huelsman’s sworn statements.” 

Some of the missing evidence from discovery was correspondence between Bill’s ex-girlfriend, Julie Seel, and Huelsman. 

Another missing item: information from Bill’s laptop, which Sharp complained about in a May motion for discovery sanctions. 

Sharp also alleged that Deberry “destroyed” evidence in the discovery process by changing Huelsman’s titles of documents to new ones that were “often false or misleading.” 

Sharp accused Huelsman of perjury after testifying in September that he turned over a complete file when he had in fact not. Hopkins-Thomas, an assistant district attorney, knew he was not telling the truth and had an “ethical obligation” to tell the court and did not, Sharp argued. 

Hudson ordered Deberry to produce “complete discovery files” within two weeks in September. They have not yet been provided, Sharp wrote in the Dec. 17 motion. 

Other ‘misrepresentations’ and ‘abuses of authority’

Another complaint centers on the “missing gold” in the case. When Alexander was indicted for murder, a judge deemed him to be a flight risk and sealed the indictment based on Huelsman’s claims of missing gold from Bill that seemed to be a possible motive. But the gold was not, in fact, missing. 

Sharp also seemingly called into question the sincerity of Huelsman’s belief that Alexander was a flight risk. She said Huelsman waited several days to arrest Alexander after the court sealed the indictment and then arrested him on a Friday so he had to spend the weekend in jail before his first appearance. 

Sharp also accused Deberry of using her powers as prosecutor to shop for an inexperienced judge and waiting to tell Alexander’s defense team. She said Deberry failed to put Alexander’s first appearance on the calendar and then sent it to a “visiting, newly-elected judge.” A courthouse deputy had told Sharp that Hopkins-Thomas informed them to bring Alexander’s case to the courtroom where the new judge was, not to Hudson, a veteran judge.

In that courtroom, several media cameras were already put up, indicating that Deberry had told the media — and not Sharp — where Alexander’s court appearance would be. But Hudson switched courtrooms to take the hearing. 

Overall, Sharp argued Deberry did all of these things to slow down the case and damage Alexander’s defense. 

“The District Attorney has made material misrepresentations to this Court; filed frivolous motions; delayed service of filed noticed and motions and committed repeated frauds upon this Court by certifying otherwise; and abused her calendaring authority with regard to the scheduling of motions in this Court, all in her continuous efforts to delay this case and to prejudice Alexander’s defense.” 

(Photo at top of Allyn Sharp, Alexander Bishop’s attorney. Photo by Cameron Beach | The 9th Street Journal)

Satana Deberry and the quest to reform justice in Durham

When you walk into the square gray box that is the Durham County courthouse, you find yourself in a sterile administrative wasteland of brownish stone walls and cold hard floors. You can feel like you’re in trouble even if you’re just there to visit.

But on the eighth floor, in an office nestled in the back, there is a speck of color on Satana Deberry’s feet – bright red Chuck Taylor high-tops. Before she goes to work as Durham County’s district attorney, she laces up those sneakers to complement her pantsuit and her silver hoop earrings. 

Satana Deberry does not resemble the district attorneys you see on crime shows or in most cities. She can be stern and serious when the occasion demands it, but she laughs a lot – so much that her staff tracks her location by the volume of her laugh echoing through the halls. (She’s been a stand-up comedian.) 

Deberry’s signature Chuck Taylor high-tops. | Photo by Erin Williams

In addition to being a woman of color in a field where 95 percent of elected prosecutors are white and 76 percent are men, Deberry has a unique way of looking at justice. She is the antithesis of the Harvey Dent-style white knight of Gotham City, intent on locking up all the bad guys. She is part of a national movement of new district attorneys working to address mass incarceration and disparities in the justice system by being more deliberate about prosecutions.

With her policies, persona, and personnel changes – she says there’s been a 50 percent turnover in her office since she arrived –  Deberry is challenging the status quo. That makes some people uncomfortable, but she is accustomed to that.

She is a queer single mother of three whose birth certificate categorizes her as “negro” and whose great-great-grandmother was enslaved just two hours southeast of Durham in Anson County. She graduated from Princeton and then from Duke Law School. She has never fit neatly into the box of others’ expectations.

The end game is not convictions, the end game is justice

Prosecutors – the real ones as well as the fictional ones like Harvey Dent – often see their work as good versus evil. But Deberry says it’s more complex and she sees people carrying the weight of their experiences when they walk into the courthouse. 

That’s a shift in the script for district attorneys, who often vilify criminals in their campaign ads and boast about high conviction rates. 

The “tough on crime” era, beginning in the 1980s with policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and truth in sentencing laws, packed the nation’s prisons. The number of people incarcerated has quintupled in the past 40 years, giving the United States the highest rate in the world, with black people incarcerated at more than five-times the rate of white people.

Prosecutors have tremendous power – not just about which cases to pursue, but what the outcome should be. Through plea bargains and sentencing, they have immense control over people’s futures. Deberry looks at her job holistically. “I’m not the police, and there are not many prosecutors offices who will say that,” she said. “My job is to get to the truth.”

She emphasizes that the prosecutor represents the commonwealth. That includes the victim, but it also includes the community and the defendant. 

Deberry said she will focus her office’s resources on prosecuting homicide and violent felonies instead of low-level crimes like marijuana possession for personal use. She also implemented a pretrial release policy that enables people to get out of jail on a written promise to appear in court – limiting the use of cash bail – which has led to a 12 percent decrease in the jail population.

“There are a couple of ways you can do this job,” Deberry said, noting that her approach is more difficult. “It’s a lot easier to be tough on crime because you don’t have to think about your impact on people’s lives or on the community. That makes it easier to do the work and it leaves it on your desk… it’s harder to look at each individual case and look at each defendant as a human being.” 

Ruffled feathers

Occasionally you can see glimpses of how she has challenged courthouse norms. 

During homicide status day – which occurs four times a year to give the judge an update on all of the pending homicide cases – Deberry asked a court deputy to retrieve a defendant from jail so he could hear an update on his case. The deputy refused, arguing that it would cause too much chaos in the courtroom. He said they never brought defendants under the former district attorney. Deberry tensed up, frustrated that he would challenge her authority in open court. 

After a lot of back and forth, she eventually got her way. But Deberry was not happy.

“Corporal!” She shouted as he was stepping onto the elevator. When he turned around, she looked him in the eye and said, “When I request a defendant, the defendant comes.” 

“It is important that a defendant be present for a hearing pertaining to his rights,” she added. 

He replied that he was only doing his job to avoid a disruption and that he reports to the sheriff, not her.

“I absolutely respect what you do in there in terms of safety and security,” Deberry said. “But we need to come to an understanding about who is in charge of that courtroom. When I am standing outside on the steps of the courthouse, I defer to the sheriff. But inside the courtroom, I have the final say as the elected district attorney.”

Back in her office, she told her prosecutors about the incident. “I am slow to offend,” she said while leaning on the door frame, but this had irked her. 

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an assistant district attorney, agreed with her boss and said that she thinks all defendants should be present for homicide status day. “Otherwise they won’t see the light of a courtroom for like two years,” she said. 

Deberry said policies have been easier to change than attitudes.  “The interaction with the bailiff today shows that the culture in the courtroom hasn’t changed as much as it should have.”

New blood

The 50% turnover in her legal team gave Deberry an opportunity to shift the focus in her office. Most of her hires had been defense attorneys or worked in academia, which Deberry says has brought fresh perspectives. 

Not everyone believes her new hires have what it takes.

“Frankly, almost everyone with experience has left,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for district attorney in the 2018 primary. “You need people who actually know the system.”

But Deberry says their experience outside the role of prosecutor is precisely what equips them to implement her reforms.

For example, she hired Beth Hopkins Thomas, former juvenile defense attorney and school teacher, to handle all juvenile cases, from low-level nonviolent crimes to homicide. 

Together she and Deberry made the decision to stop taking court referrals for school based-incidents because they believe that students’ behavioral challenges are better handled by educators. Kids who are exposed to the criminal justice system often grow into adults who stay in the criminal justice system. 

“I was a teacher before I went to law school and I watched that pipeline stem from my school,” Hopkins Thomas said. “Having the ability to say we are not going to be participating in this pipeline is very empowering.”

Meier said that Deberry’s hires, many of whom come from social justice backgrounds, don’t have the right stomach for prosecuting criminals.  He pointed to Alyson Grine — a prosecutor for homicide and violent crimes — as an example. “She went from a liberal position – reform the system, fight racial bias – to having to send people to prison for the rest of their lives.” 

Deberry said the heavy caseload can quickly tempt her new hires to be more prosecutorial than they expected, so they are constantly having conversations to ask themselves “not only can we prosecute this, but should we?” 

“We see horrible things. It is natural as a human being to respond to those.” She said even if the crime is nonviolent, the desire for retribution is often a natural reflex. “And so we really just want to always be double checking ourselves and saying, is our response getting to the truth? Is it fair? Is it just?”

A national movement

Deberry is part of a new movement of progressive prosecutors. They come together frequently through an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution that is trying to redefine the role of district attorneys. 

Members have traveled to Germany and Portugal to compare other countries’ approaches to justice. “The number one thing I learned from both of those places — that I already knew but is driven home when you go somewhere else — is how punitive we are in the United States,” Deberry said. “We really like to punish people and we think of that almost as a virtue.”

Deberry is particularly close to Rachael Rollins, the district attorney from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston. Rollins took office the day before Deberry and the two have a lot in common. 

“Particularly the black female DAs, we have a text chain we are all in. We like to remain in contact with each other. If somebody has a particularly terrible day, we are there for each other, which is really nice,” Rollins said.

As a woman of color from the rural South, Deberry faced countless obstacles to get where she is today. In high school when she interviewed for a prestigious scholarship at the University of Chapel Hill, she was accused of plagiarizing her essay by one of the committee members. “He just could not believe that a black kid from Hamlet could have written it.”

“I thought I was growing up in an America where I could do anything, but really there were other people making these decisions about what schools I got to go to, and what classes I got to take, even what schools I applied to.” When she decided to apply to Princeton, she got a lot of pushback from guidance counselors and teachers.  “There was a lot of discouragement because they thought I was doing something that was ‘above my raisin’.’’’

Both Rollins and Deberry also have family members who have been involved with the justice system. After law school and some time practicing in D.C., Deberry returned to her hometown of Hamlet, North Carolina, and she was asked to defend her cousin who was charged with murder.

“I saw people who I had grown up with involved in the criminal justice system, many of whom had never left and did not finish high school,” Deberry said. “I also saw how, in a community that was not majority black, the criminal justice system is almost entirely black.”

Those experiences are why Deberry balks at comments from Meier, who says she “has a fundamental lack of understanding of the system,” and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, who says that the work of progressive prosecutors is “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.” 

“I would say in response to that, they are the ones who don’t understand the role of the prosecutor,” Deberry said. 

“I think we understand fully what the discretion of prosecutors has wrought in this country. There was nothing wrong with the discretion of the prosecutor for the hundreds of years in which it was used to marginalize and criminalize people. Now all of a sudden, because people who look like me have that discretion, they want to paint it as illegitimate.”

She makes a similar point when she introduces herself in speeches:

“I am Satana Deberry,” she says. “I am the district attorney of the 16th prosecutorial district… I tell you my name, not because you don’t know it. I tell you my name because every day in this country and this community there are people who go nameless. People who have been failed by one system after another. People who often look like me.”

Update: This story has been corrected with details about Deberry’s office, her Chucks and the role of prosecutor Alyson Grine.  

At the courthouse, replacing ‘shucks’ with modern record-keeping

The record-keeping system at the Durham courthouse is a glimpse back in time.

A large room in the Durham clerk’s office has drawers full of tightly rolled ribbons of film. An assistant clerk feeds a strip of “microfilm” into an old-fashioned grey machine and turns a knob. The black and white screen shows court records from as recently as twelve years ago.

Court records at the Durham courthouse are still kept on microfilm. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

A few steps over, there are stacks of large judgment books, bound in canvas and leather. Inside the books, in carefully crafted cursive, live the names of defendants and plaintiffs alongside their verdicts from cases until 2007. 

The clerk’s office is like a museum of record-keeping from the 1900s, with systems and documents that are reminiscent of generations past. Durham is typical of the rest of the state. It is still reliant on ancient computers and cardboard boxes stuffed with files.

Records from as recent as 2007 were still logged in leather-bound books – in cursive handwriting. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

But officials say help is on the way. A new initiative will bring a new electronic records system to Durham and other North Carolina courts over the next five years.

Mending a “Patchwork Quilt”

Archie Smith, the clerk for Durham Superior Court, says the state’s courthouses have been relying on a “patchwork quilt” of technology that “began to show its age.” 

In 2015, the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court studied the needs of courts throughout the state. One of the top priorities was technology.

As a result, the Administrative Office of the Courts signed a contract in July with Tyler Technologies, a Texas software company, to move North Carolina to a modernized system using their Odyssey case management tool.  

Christopher Mears, a spokesperson for the state office of the courts, said the specifics are still being ironed out.

“We ultimately are paving the way for a virtual courthouse,” he said in an email.

When it’s finished, Durham and other counties will get modern integrated systems so clerks can manage documents, keep track of finances, and help lawyers file their motions online.

The project is expected to roll to a few pilot counties by March 2021. 

“From Murphy to Manteo, everyone will be on the same system,” Smith said. 

Frozen in Time

Today, clerks are surprisingly dependent on paper and outdated technologies. Consider the situation in Durham’s District Court, which relies on antique-looking monochrome computers and envelopes known as “shucks.”

Shucks. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

The District Court clerk’s office first receives law enforcement agencies’ records, which are often adorned with hasty, illegible scrawl. 

Clerks then stuff these documents in color-coded shucks: grey for infractions, brown for traffic violations, white for criminal cases, and yellow for DWIs. 

An assistant clerk sits in front of a green and black screen, reminiscent of arcade games like “Space Invaders” from the age before color displays. She manually transfers each case’s details the court’s electronic database. 

Then, the shucks are moved to cardboard boxes, which fill a narrow room up to the ceiling. 

The monochrome monitors look like they were made in the 1980s. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

Sometimes, the documents are scanned and put onto CDs. The woman who scans them dips her hands in a pink tub of fingertip moistener, used by archivists who sort through thousands of parchments daily, so she can better grip the paper. 

The difficulty in finding an old case depends on how it was archived. If someone requests a file from the late 1900s, staff must leaf through the aged pages of the leather-bound judgement books or hand-spin the microfilm tapes on a machine that bears a striking resemblance to the first television. 

Court records are like time capsules, since documents remain in the format they were originally stored, Williams said. 

“Helping People at the Lowest Points in their Lives” 

The goal of the new system: make the court more efficient. 

“I expect that we’ll be completely electronic, other than scratch paper that you’d write notes to yourself,” Smith said. After all, North Carolina courts are running out of space to keep paper files. 

Electronic records sound promising. William Sheppard, Chief Deputy of the Dekalb County Clerk of Superior Court in Georgia, oversaw the county’s successful transition to the Odyssey Case Management software in 2016.

Boxes and boxes of shucks | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

He says the system has saved time for the county’s staff and clients. Financial processing that once took two weeks is now complete within a day. 

But paper hasn’t disappeared from the courthouse. 

“We call it paper on-demand,” Sheppard said. It is still available, but they try to avoid print where possible. 

Blair Williams, Wake County’s Superior Court clerk, says he wants the technology to help humanize the court system. 

“I want to eliminate the keystrokes because they keep us from doing what we do best: helping people at the lowest points in their lives,” he said. 

“It Can’t Tell the Story that the Paper Can” 

Williams says it won’t be easy to get court staffers throughout the state to give up their familiar procedures. .

And others are wary about depending on technology. Lynn Vaughan, an assistant clerk of courts in Durham, said, 

“The computer system might be great, but it can’t tell the story that the paper can.” 

Technology often has glitches. Tyler Technologies, the creator of the Odyssey system, has faced reports of causing wrongful arrests, prolonged jail time, and premature releases in Alameda County, Calif., Shelby County, Tenn., and Marion County, Ind

These issues may stem from problems with the Odyssey software, including incompatibility with prior electronic systems or data-entry backlogs that delay cases from getting updated. 

Jennifer Kepler, a spokesperson for Tyler Technologies, defends the software. She said that

budget deficits in Alameda accounted for the county’s premature adoption of Odyssey, against Tyler’s recommendation. In Shelby and Marion, Odyssey was being blamed for issues caused by other court technologies, she said. 

Today, Kepler says the three counties are “satisfied clients,” with Shelby and Alameda counties winning 2019 Tyler Excellence Awards for their innovative use of the software. 

However, possible difficulties with the technology remain on North Carolina’s radar.

“If there’s a failure in the system, the injury to the courthouse process would be colossal in scope,” Smith said. “As cumbersome as the old system was, there was a certain amount of security in that warm fuzzy blanket of paper.” Smith said. 

Despite those reports, Smith and Williams agree that the computerized system will be an important step forward. 

“North Carolina is blazing a path for the courts of the nation.” Smith said. 

But chucking the shucks? That might take a generation on its own.

In photo at top, shucks for District Court cases are stored in cardboard boxes. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

Archie Smith: the unlikely rise of a Durham native and Atticus Finch fan

Archie Smith spoke to the young woman the day before she was murdered.

He had just started practicing law and saw the woman in the old Durham courthouse. She told him she was concerned about his client, who was charged with a violent crime.

“Look, are you up here today to see if you can get him out on bond?” she asked Smith. 

“Yes, I am,” he told her.

“Please don’t do that. I’m the victim. I’m going to get attacked. If you get him out on bond, he’s going to hurt me.”

‘Ma’am, I’m a lawyer, and I have an obligation to represent the best interest of my client. I’m compelled to do that as an officer of this court.”

Today, he can only remember that she was a school teacher, but he can’t recall her name. He was an attorney, “young and stupid. Full of myself,” he says.

“Sure enough, I got him out. The next day I was up at the jailhouse, and he’d killed her,” Smith says.

Today, Smith says he still carries a sense of guilt from the woman’s death.

“The woman looked me right square in the eye and predicted it. What it taught me was that hubris has no place in my life. If I had not been as callow, if I had been more mature at the time and listened and believed, she may still be alive today.”

He tries to bring that humility to his job every day as the Durham clerk of Superior Court. It may sound like a humdrum job, but it’s actually makes him one of the most powerful people in the courthouse. While the media eye watches District Attorney Satana Deberry or the defense attorneys, Smith not only manages the vital records of the courts, but he also acts as a judge  in cases about who’s competent to manage their finances and their legal affairs. 

Step into Smith’s trinket-filled office on the second floor and you’ll discover one of the most interesting characters of the courthouse, a native Durhamite who keeps the place running and tries to create community among the employees. 

‘All rise for the judge’

In North Carolina, court clerks have sweeping powers. Smith oversees the vital court records; he’s judge for about 46 proceedings, and he manages about 40% of Judicial Branch employees. Since becoming clerk, he’s aimed to build community among the staff.

Smith’s biggest responsibilities include controlling the inflow and outflow of court funds and hearing probate cases, where people quarrel over a dead relative’s will. And much of the time that he acts as judge, it’s up to him to keep and file the records.

Smith, 69, is a folksy grandpa with a fondness for Atticus Finch from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” He has shaved his white goatee and mustache into an upside-down teardrop shape. His teeth — slightly crooked on top and spaced out on the bottom — are visible when he grins and chuckles.

He talks slowly with a slight Southern drawl, chattering about “hogwash” or “a duck sitting in the water splashing.”

“The funnest part of my job?” He says. “Showing up.”

He puts people at ease. When the assistant clerk announces “All rise for the judge!”, Smith responds with a quick request that they sit, like he’s displeased with the formality.

He then changes to a professional, get-this-case-done approach, says Danielle Briggs, a county attorney at the Department of Social Services, who works with him on competency and guardianship hearings.

“Some judges will be very informal throughout a proceeding, and that will cause problems. (But Smith) makes a very clear switch from ‘Hey everybody. How’s it going?’ to ‘Okay, we’re going to straighten this out.’”

Smith sees many first-timers in his courtroom and in the clerk’s offices. He says that many Durham residents don’t have money to hire a lawyer. He wants to help them represent themselves without overstepping legal boundaries.

“If you’re not involved in the legal system, it’s Greek to you,” he says. “We can give them information and help them get something done and be a servant to ‘em. Make ‘em feel comfortable. Now we can’t do your work for ya, but we can point you.”

Despite his sweeping powers and the fact he’s won reelection since he started 17 years ago, he remains largely unknown in the city. 

Retired attorney Jay Freeman says most people don’t know what any North Carolina clerk does. 

“It’s a very important position,” he says. “It affects more people, quite frankly, than a judge does.”

The mediator

Smith’s office, tucked behind his personal courtroom on the second floor, is filled with an unusual mix of with trinkets and collectibles. A stuffed worm found in local tobacco plants, a Galileo thermometer, a paperback Guide to Texas Etiquette, and about 20 model cars. 

On his credenza, he keeps an 11-by-14 photo of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He says the convictions and character make him a role model. 

“He was trying to get to the truth,” he says of the legendary character in the novel and film. “In order to get to the truth, he sacrificed a lot. He was representing an unpopular cause. His community, with his daughter there, and all his neighbors there. He could have been ostracized from his neighborhood.” 

Smith sighs. “But it was so important to him. I have to admire somebody like that.”

He thinks a lot about integrity when the hard cases come, and there have been a lot of them since that young teacher died.

He sometimes has to keep parents from accessing their minor children’s trust funds, even when they just want to pay a utility or buy their kids a Christmas gift. He recalls denying competency to an ingenious but deceitful man even though people were backing his independence. 

He often has to say “no” – and that’s not always popular.

Satana Deberry, the Durham district attorney, says Smith tries harder than anyone else to be a mediator at the courthouse. 

“Archie is like ‘hail fellow well met.’ He has a classic Durham story that I don’t think we see a lot anymore. He is the white kid who grew up poor in Durham, really has been working his whole life to get where he is,” she says. “I think he sees everybody on the other side of the counter the same way he sees himself. I don’t think he makes any differentiation.”

Lifelong Durhamite

Smith was born at Duke University Hospital, delivered newspapers, and went to Durham High School, which is now just a memory. He recalls eating shaved ice from tall glasses in a Duke cafeteria and catching tadpoles in Dixie cups from the Duke Gardens. He’s a lifelong Durhamite, and he’s nostalgic about the past. 

“Well, Durham is home, gosh,” he says. 

He recalls a “happening” Durham with full employment and prosperity. He says it was the envy of the Raleighites and Caryans, if you will. 

“They don’t have something that Durham has,” he says. “We have a number of historic buildings that give a certain panache. The past tied to the future. Old warehouses and things, enough of that has been saved.”

Many of his office trinkets point to Durham’s past such as a nametag for his predecessor James Leo Carr, a key to the old courthouse vault, and some Ever Ready Oil to lubricate the key. 

His trinkets are “a reminder of the way things used to be. And I like being about the way things used to be,” he says.

He romanticizes watching the film “The Spirit of St. Louis” with his parents and younger brother at the Starlite Drive-In off Club Boulevard. But he says he likes the new, more avant-garde and pedestrian-friendly Durham, too.

“Well, if you don’t change, you’re going to get lost.”